King Cotton's Advocate: Oscar G. Johnston and the New Deal. By Lawrence J. Nelson. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1999. Pp. 376. Preface, acknowledgments, epilogue, notes, bibliography, and index. $38.00.)
Much of the history of the New Deal has been written by historians in sympathy with President Franklin Roosevelt's administration and the programs that were created to help solve the problems caused by the Great Depression. When scholars criticize these programs, it is often because, in their view, they did not go far enough in remaking American society. A great deal has been written about the flood of New Dealers who descended upon Washington determined to reinvent the country with none but the best of intentions and the most lofty of goals. Anyone seen to be in opposition to those goals has often been described as a reactionary, standing in the way of a fairer and more just social order. In particular, large landowners of the South have often been singled out as mean-spirited villains who stole from the sharecroppers and kept them as modern-day serfs, tied to the land. Though there is some justification for this description, there is, as always, another side to the story.
Lawrence Nelson's book about Oscar Johnston is a worthy attempt at redressing this longstanding imbalance. Nelson's purpose is to show, through the life of Johnston, that not all of the landowners were instinctively regressive. If anything, though, selecting Oscar Johnston as an example makes Nelson's job too easy. Johnston was by all accounts a brilliant man. He had a keen, quick mind and the oratorical skills to put it to good use. A native of Mississippi, he began his business career as an attorney, but quickly became involved in politics. He served in the state legislature, becoming well known throughout the state, but finally left politics after being defeated in a campaign for the governor's office in 1919.
Through a serendipitous chain of events in 1926, Oscar Johnston found himself working for a largely British-owned plantation known as Delta and Pine Land Company. This plantation was one of the largest in the world, consisting of over 38,000 acres of land and employing several thousand sharecroppers. Managing such an enterprise was a challenge, but Johnston liked challenges and he was uniquely suited for the task. His business acumen and legal training, along with his political experience, were used to great effect in turning around the struggling plantation's fortunes.
In 1933 these same traits resulted in Johnston's appointment to a New Deal agency called the Agricultural Adjustment Administration. …